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Anyone who has ever had to put up with playground bullies would know that the one thing they hate the most are rules. First they want to bend them and when that does not work want them changed.
There is a whiff of that bullyboy syndrome in some of the arguments we often hear in the post-9/11 debate over fighting terrorism. The Right, especially the American Right which is more gung-ho than its European counterpart, is convinced that the curr ent international rules of conduct relating to national sovereignty and human rights have become obsolete after 9/11, and should be torn up to allow America and its allies to wage the war on terror more effectively.
The argument is that these rules were devised for a different era and are too restrictive to deal with modern-day terrorism, which is a whole new ball game. The reason why we react with such horror to pre-emptive military strikes or to what goes on in Guantanamo Bay, it is stated, is we tend to judge these actions by norms which have become outdated. So, don’t blame the Americans and the Brits. Blame the anachronistic rules under which they are forced to operate.
It is typical of the bullyboy tactic: don’t show me the yellow card; it’s the referee who should be sent packing; and while about it, will you also please move the goalpost? And it’s not just the much-maligned neo-cons who are rooting for a new “doctrine” for a new age of terrorism. The infection is spreading across the ideological spectrum and even among liberals of a certain kind (those on the right of the Labour Party or those on the Left of the Tory mainstream), there is a growing sense that the old notions of doing business have had their day.
For instance, the idea that national sovereignty is sacred is becoming increasingly threadbare and the emerging new view is that it cannot be invoked as an argument against foreign intervention in a country which is seen as a source of terrorism. The mere perception that a country is not fighting terrorism as effectively as the amorphous international community or its neighbours believe that it should be is fast becoming a ground to justify intervention.
A new book by Philip Bobbitt, one of America’s most respected political historians and leading critic of the Bush administration, opens with the line: “I believe that almost every widely held idea we currently entertain about twenty-first century terrorism and its relationship to the war against terror is wrong and must be thoroughly rethought.”
Mr. Bobbitt, who comes from a long line of America’s Democratic tradition and has served under six different administrations, is best known for his 2002 book, The Shield of Achilles, hailed as a breathtaking exploration of the changing nature of nationhood, war and peace. His new book, Terror and Consent: the Wars for the Twenty-First Century, which has become a must-read for politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, is a plea for shedding the conventional wisdom about the nature of terrorism and ways of dealing with it. The old ideas, he argues, are simply not suited to tackle 21st century terrorism.
“The looming combination of a global terrorist network, weapons of mass destruction and the heightening vulnerability of enormous numbers of civilians emphatically require a basic transformation of the conventional wisdom in international security,” he writes.
This is followed by a laundry list of assumptions that he wants ditched before a proper debate can even begin. There are more than 20 of what he calls “dubious propositions” about 21st century terrorism that are so “widely and tenaciously held” that even in informed circles there is a great deal of confusion about what we are really up against. Here are the ‘Top Ten’: terrorism has always been with us and though its weapons may change, it will remain fundamentally the same; because terrorism will always be with us, there can be no victory in a war against terror; because there is no enemy state against which such a war can be waged, the very notion of a “war” on terror is at best a public relations locution; terrorism cannot be an enemy ... because it is a method, a technique; because terrorism is a technique, not an ideology, it is always a means to an end; one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter; the root cause of terrorism lies in conditions of poverty and economic exploitation; terrorism is not a matter for defence departments when there are no battlefield lines or armies to confront; rules of law that apply to conventional conflicts cannot apply to war on terror; and good intelligence provides the decisive key to defeating terrorism.
The cumulative result of these assumptions, Mr. Bobbitt says, is that most “people do not believe that we are at war.” And since they do not believe that a war is on, they find the war-like rhetoric and the methods that the West is using to fight it abhorrent. They are baffled why Iraq was invaded or why Americans are doing what they are doing in Guantanamo Bay or why supposedly democratic nations are clamping increasingly draconian laws at the expense of individual rights.
So, the first thing to recognise — and, more importantly, make sure that people get it — is that we have a proper, bloody war on our hands. But since it is not a conventional war, old rules do not apply. Once this is widely accepted, the rest will fall in place and everything that has happened since 9/11— the invasion of Iraq, the crackdown on civil liberties, the rendition flights, the shame of Guantanamo Bay — will start to make sense.
But Mr. Bobbitt is not finished yet.
The most controversial element of his thesis is the argument that it is not enough to simply change our theoretical assumptions about the nature of the war on terror and the way to tackle it. More important is the need to rewrite the rules of engagement and in a way that they are seen to have popular consent. In other words, we need to gild the lily so that it stops looking ugly. To do this, Mr. Bobbitt suggests a broad U.S.-led global alliance of what he calls “states of consent” which would then develop a new set of international principles on a range of issues such as the circumstances under which force can “legitimately” be used against another state to pre-empt a terrorist strike or to destroy weapons of mass destruction.Parallel regime
The suggestion is not as innocent as it sounds. Shorn of pompous sophistry and verbiage, it boils down to this: a parallel regime of “international law” run by a group of self-styled “states of consent” which will not be accountable to anybody except its own little club. The rules drawn up by the “states of consent” will override the existing international conventions such as the United Nations Charter, which prohibits the use of force against another member-country in the absence of an actual or imminent attack unless authorised by the Security Council.
Mr. Bobbitt is very clear that the aim of the arrangement he is proposing is to resolve the “conflict” between the U.N.’s restrictive rules and the need for quick action to pre-empt a terror strike or proliferation of WMDs. This will enable America and its fellow “states of consent” to attack Iran at will to stop its nuclear programme. They will not need any U.N. authorisation.
In fact, Mr. Bobbitt hints at as much: “In the era we are entering of disguised attack using terrorist networks, the proliferation of WMD can make pre-emption an absolute necessity. For once any state ... acquires nuclear weapons — a moment that no monitoring seems capable of predicting with precision — it is too late to compel deproliferation.”
The prospect of a private alliance of self-serving “states of consent” bullying the rest of the world is alarming, to say the least. Judging from Mr. Bobbitt’s sketchy definition of who would qualify for membership of this cosy club, it seems it would be restricted to America, its European allies and Israel. It would be interesting to see whether India, America’s newest strategic partner, would be allowed on board.
Mr. Bobbitt, who is currently Director of the Center for National Security at Columbia University, portrays himself as an independent scholar (a “plague-on-both-your-houses” sort of guy) and says “there is in my book, it seems, something to offend everyone.”
But if I got his dense, and sometimes woolly, thesis right he is not only palpably partisan but a closet hawk despite his life-long Democratic links. And, if he gets to influence America’s next putative President Barack Obama’s policies, it won’t be long before they start to miss George Bush.
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